Mediocre Instruction

 "Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling is barely worth the effort."
Theodore Sizer 

When we look back upon our school years, most of us remember a handful of teachers who were considerably more talented and inspiring than other teachers.  Unfortunately, such teachers are presently little more than oases in the vast waste- land of our educational system.  Dictionary definitions of “mediocre” include “neither very good or very bad, ordinary, average” and “not good enough, inferior.”  The vast majority of the teachers in our classrooms are well-intentioned individuals doing the job the best way they know how, but they are decidedly average and relatively uninspiring. In too many cases, their best isn’t good enough.  Although we typically speak of the teaching “profession,” it would be more accurate to speak of the “art” of teaching. Teaching, done well, is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.  The ideal teacher possesses a considerable number of important skills and attributes. 

A combination of subject matter knowledge and effective communication skills is the most obvious prerequisite for teachers.  A teacher’s knowledge is of little use to students if that teacher lacks the ability to communicate at a level and in a way that students can understand.  Conversely, communication skills are not worth much if a teacher does not have a thorough knowledge of the subject to convey.  A teacher’s knowledge of a subject should include familiarity with a broad range of books and other materials available to help students move beyond mere mastery of the required objectives related to a subject.  Textbooks cover the basics in most courses, but they do little to enrich the learning process.  Exemplary teachers have the ability to evaluate the quality of various supplemental materials, and the perseverance needed to wade through the mass of mediocre materials to find the occasional gem. 

A good teacher functions as an educational guide for students, recommending and/or assigning, books, short stories, essays, and articles to be read, and selecting appropriate software programs and videos.  To be effective, a guide must be extremely familiar with the territory being explored.  Through supplemental resources and a teacher’s own knowledge, students are exposed to the thoughts of great philosophers, the ideas and discoveries of great scientists, and great works of art and literature created throughout human history.  The depth and detail added by well-chosen resources makes the learning process more interesting and more enjoyable. 

Another important quality of the ideal teacher is a thorough knowledge of the learning process, including familiarity with different learning styles.  The ability to present material in a variety of ways is vital if a teacher is to effectively instruct students who differ greatly in terms of their ability to learn, prior knowledge, and learning styles—this requires mastery of a variety of instructional strategies, and an awareness of which strategies will be most effective in achieving various objectives with a broad range of students. 

Love of teaching and a love of learning are essential characteristics for teachers.  Students are typically quite aware of which teachers enjoy teaching and which teachers are simply going through the motions.  Students are less likely to work enthusiastically to master a subject when the teacher is not truly interested in the subject being studied, or the activity taking place.  Conversely, a teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject can be contagious.  It is essential that we populate our class- rooms with teachers who are also students.  Teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin.  Effective teachers are committed to their own professional and personal growth.  The wisdom that comes with age comes in greatest abundance to those individuals who have been active and enthusiastic learners throughout their lifetimes. 

Although many effective teachers are remote and uninvolved with their students, a sincere love of people is a valuable quality in a teacher.  Many children, adolescents, and young adults have critical needs that are not academic in nature.  Students seem to know instinctively whether a teacher has a genuine interest in, and respect for, them as individuals.  Interaction with the teacher and the feeling of being respected are very important to many students. 

Teachers must also be able to motivate students, especially within a system where school attendance is compulsory and a large part of a student’s course of study consists of required courses and text and test-driven objectives within each course.  The most common complaint of students is that a teacher, class, reading selection, assignment, or activity is “boring.”  Students, especially older students, may be guilty of being predisposed to complain of boredom. In many cases they may eventually find that they have more interest in a topic than they might have anticipated.  However, in a system where students have little control over what to study, one of the primary duties of a teacher is to motivate students. 

Last, but not least, the ideal teacher should be a good role model for students, in a broad sense of the term. Developing a strong moral sense and positive character traits in students are important by-products of schooling.  Setting a good example is the most effective means of developing the moral character of the young.  A teacher must be honest, fair, trustworthy, and compassionate to serve as an effective role model. 

Very few people have all of these attributes.  A teacher may be weak in one or more of these areas and still be a reasonably effective instructor.  However, “reasonably effective” is not always sufficient. Our students need and deserve more teachers who are truly inspiring.  The most direct route to achieving significant improvements in the quality of the instruction we provide is to increase the percentage of classrooms staffed by individuals who possess as many of these qualities as possible. 

While the effort put forth by students may be the main determinant with regard to how much and how well they learn, talented teachers can make a difference.  The effort that students put into learning is wasted when classroom activities are poorly designed and do not stimulate or challenge them.  An inspiring teacher can often generate interest in a topic or activity that is not of immediate or obvious interest to students.  They can make difficult material somewhat easier to understand. Unfortunately, uninspiring teachers can also do a lot to dampen interest.  Too many of our teachers are competent, but not really capable of sparking the interest of students in instances where there is no natural interest. 

The lack of specialization within the present educational system is the primary factor that makes teaching such a difficult job.  We expect every teacher to be a jack-of-all-trades: planning lessons, leading discussions, lecturing, tutoring, motivating students, locating and evaluating supplemental resources, monitoring students, and when all else fails, disciplining students who misbehave.  Teachers are also responsible for taking attendance and assigning grades.  In some schools, teachers are called upon to act as counselors, helping students select classes and/or careers.  In schools where a significant number of students are burdened with emotional problems, some teachers, by default or by choice, take on the additional roles of psychologist or social worker. In response to the inferior quality of most of the worksheets, suggested activities, review questions, and tests that are produced as supplements to textbooks, teachers often write and construct their own tests and other materials.  Few individuals have the full range of talents needed to fill all of these roles effectively. 

Teachers are the primary point of contact between students and our educational system.  The teacher creates and maintains the climate within a classroom, which can be a stimulating, exciting, and joyful place, or a stark, barren, oppressive environment.  A teacher’s personality, attitude, and aptitude can inspire and motivate students, or contribute to the conviction, common among students, that getting an education is a dull, boring process.  A talented teacher has a strong impact on student achievement.  Even in the context of our current system, with its many flaws, some outstanding educators manage to overcome most, if not all, of the problems that plague our schools to have a noticeably positive affect on many of the students they teach.  Students benefit greatly from the presence, the guidance, and the example of inspired and inspiring educators.  Mediocre teachers have a negative impact on students’ motivation to learn.  They can make interesting subjects seem less interesting. They can make the learning process seem tedious.